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US pastor challenges Russia's 'anti-missionary' law at European Court of Human Rights

(Wikimedia Commons/Adrian Grycuk)Courtroom of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

An American Baptist missionary, who was fined for holding weekly Bible studies in Russia, has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights to appeal the severe sanctions imposed by the country's "anti-missionary" law.

Donald Ossewaarde was the first U.S. missionary to be charged under Russia's "Yarovaya" law that was introduced in July 2016. He was fined 40,000 rubles ($600) after he was found guilty of conducting illegal missionary activities for hosting Sunday morning Bible studies at his home in the Russian city of Oryol.

The "Yarovaya" law, named after one of its authors, was introduced as an "anti-terrorism" measure, which allows the government to monitor extremist groups, according to World Watch Monitor.

Ossewaarde had already made several appeals, including one to the Russian Supreme Court, but his efforts have been unsuccessful. On Wednesday, he filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, with the help of ADF International, a legal organization advocating for religious freedom.

"Freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental rights. Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. Despite the Russian Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion for all, Donald Ossewaarde has been charged with a criminal offence for holding a peaceful Church service in his own home," said ADF International Legal Counsel Laurence Wilkinson.

"His conviction is a hugely concerning development for religious freedom across Russia in general, and for Christian missionaries in particular," he added.

He noted that the appeal to the European court represents a "last resort" in challenging the Russian law.

"As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, the Russian government should reconsider the scope of its counter-terrorism laws to guarantee the right to freedom of religion for all of its inhabitants," Wilkinson continued.

Wilkinson, who is the leading lawyer on Ossewaarde's case, noted that while the law was intended at preventing terrorist activity, it had a "devastating" effect on religious activities that cannot be considered dangerous in any sense.

Ossewaarde has previously stated that the Russian court refused his request to allow time for his lawyers to come from Moscow for the initial hearing. The court appointed another lawyer who advised him to accept the verdict and pay the fine without appeal. The lawyer also told the pastor that it would be better for him to leave the city because anything could happen to him and his family.

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